5 Aug - Bling, beauty, boating tales and some cool jazz in Newport
Newport RI is famous for its opulent mansions, built by rich industrialists who used the town as a summer retreat. Mark Twain, probably ironically, referred to the period in the late 19th early 20th century as the ‘Gilded Age’; was there any substance beneath the ‘bling’? On Saturday 28th, we went to find out, visiting ‘Breakers’, the home of the Vanderbilt family.
The Vanderbilts made their money on the railways in the main and were at the very heart of the growth of this nation. No surprise, then, that Cornelius (grandson of the man who created this particular empire) built a massive Renaissance-style palace on the Atlantic shore of Newport, called ‘Breakers’. It’s opulent in every way: but perhaps most surprising of all is that it only took two years to build. Sadly, he died shortly after it was finished and only spent one brief season in it. It stayed in the family for three further generations until the 1970s, by which time the money had run out and today it is a National Historic Landmark owned by a charity. Where did all the Vanderbilt money go? Inevitably some of it was frittered away on lavish lifestyles, but the main player was the rise of the motor vehicle which undermined the wealth of the railways. In parallel, the arrival of Income Tax put paid to most of these houses as private homes.
‘Breakers’ – the Newport cottage of the Vanderbilt dynasty
It’s hard to imagine Breakers as a holiday home, but then times have changed! For example the gardens are relatively small and the sea view isn’t all that special. Far easier to see it as a statement of the scale of ambition and wealth of the owner, where visiting businessmen would be suitably impressed by the ornate carvings, the scale of the public rooms, the attention to detail. Most of the paintings on display are family portraits rather than Grand Masters, but perhaps that’s a factor of modern museum ownership rather than Vanderbilt narcissism? Saddam Hussein’s palace in Baghdad had pictures of him… I wonder what paintings hang in Trump Tower?
The dining room ceiling at Breakers. I prefer the Painted Hall at Greenwich for my breakfast viewing.
We all had audio tours provided on Ipod-type devices and these were very good, giving just the right amount of information and drawing the visitor through the site. We all enjoyed the visit, but none of us thought ‘how amazing’; perhaps it’s because we have seen plenty of European versions, or because Mark Twain was right?
That evening we celebrated Lizzie’s birthday upstairs at the Clarke Cooke House on Bannisters Wharf. ‘Twas a splendid occasion in a restaurant with fine views overlooking the harbour, waiters in penguin suits (Matt and I both found shirts with collars!) and the girls looking fantastic, surrounded by America’s Cup memorabilia and some of Newport’s Beautiful People.
On Sunday, we went sailing. At least, we would have done had there been any wind. The brief window in the weather that swept us down Long Island Sound earlier in the week and culminated in a bit of a storm on Friday night, evaporated into a hot, sticky windless day. So we motored down to the harbour entrance, had a good look at some of the serious houses, and put the young people ashore after lunch for the long drive back to New York. In Lizzie’s case, it was also the end of her holiday with us onboard Escapade as she returned to London on Tuesday (just in time to race at Cowes Week!). The weekend was a lovely way to finish this phase of the trip – visiting Anna and Matt in New York, having Lizzie onboard and all getting together for some great adventures over the fortnight.
Birthday Girl Lizzie, with Matt
Anna with the Escapaders
Back at the Hinckley yard, we had the generous offer of a car from a colleague of Julie’s from Morgan Stanley, so we had wheels for the week. By chance, two of Julie’s Morgan Stanley US colleagues live in the Newport area and are keen sailors, so it was a perfect opportunity to catch up with them. Nigel the engineer successfully finished the generator repair on Tuesday whilst we polished the boat (the brown waters of the Chesapeake had stained the hull and we looked a bit shabby alongside the immaculate Hinckleys, Little Harbours, Swans and assembled exotica at the yard) and painted the sound box. We returned to the anchorage down in Newport on Wednesday and on Thursday set off by car in search of some medication for me.
I had about a month’s worth of my daily medicines remaining and we needed to find a doctor to issue a repeat prescription. The American health system is very different to anything you might find in Europe, so we were expecting to hand over some cash. We went to a private ‘primary care’ facility at the other end of Rhode Island where the staff were extremely helpful. The consultancy cost $125, which was what we expected. When I went into the local CVS Pharmacy later that day to collect the medicines, though, I was in for a shock: they wanted around $800 for one variety! I had to sit down. Fortunately, there are some practical options open to us – the idea of flying home to visit my local GP was floated briefly, but it shouldn’t come to that, even though it would be cheaper than the CVS price!
On the way back to the boat we diverted through the very pretty town of Bristol RI, to visit the Herreshoff Museum. Nathaniel Herreshoff was an engineer and yacht designer in the early part of the 20th century. He and his family had a huge impact on American shipbuilding, yachting and specifically the America’s Cup which endures to this day. The boats he built with his blind brother remain amongst the fastest and most beautiful ever built and the story of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, its relationship with Bristol and the wider world holds a very important place in the history of our sport. We really enjoyed seeing a huge collection of his beautiful craft and learning about an immigrant family and their impact on modern America. Today, the Museum runs a Summer training camp for ordinary Americans to learn about seamanship and appreciate the beauty and design of these vessels, taught in the very craft that Herreshoff built. How interesting to compare this with the Vanderbilt mansion just a few miles south: both families making an enduring contribution to the industrial development and reputation of the United States. Two Vanderbilts are inductees in the Americas Cup Hall of Fame, alongside Nathaniel and more recently, a clutch of Kiwis reflecting the ascendancy of our Southern Ocean brethren in many aspects of sailing today.
A small section of the vessels on display at the Herreshoff Museum, Bristol RI
On Saturday, it poured with rain. We had planned to investigate the tennis Hall of Fame and walk along the cliffs in front of the Gilded Era mansions with our friends Paul and Babs in LYRA MAGNA (Paul helped me sail ESCAPADE from Charleston to Little Creek and they have caught up with us again). But some miserable weather put paid to that. Not everyone’s waterborne fun is so discretionary though, and our neighbour at anchor was a 60 foot steel motorsailer generating some income from a spot of chartering. Today they had a ‘gig’: a group of half a dozen rather large people (RLP) who clearly found exercise a bit of a struggle. Braving heavy rain and some gusty conditions, they prepared to get underway, but after 20 minutes or so struggling with the anchor it was clear he was still well secured to the seabed.
I reflected that if he’d spent some of the week fixing his defective windlass, he might have found things easier. He tried connecting the anchor chain directly to a genoa winch, which brought things pretty much ‘underfoot’ but he was still securely attached to the seabed and the rusty chain was playing havoc with his upper decks. When he started driving the boat around the anchorage at high engine speeds in an effort to dislodge the anchor, the neighbouring boats got quite excited. I was confident that I had not laid my anchor on top of his and remembered that he had proudly announced that he had been at anchor there for nearly a fortnight without dragging when I’d tried to engage with him a few days earlier in a squall. Overnight, a really beautiful 55’ yacht had arrived close by and Julie and I watched with interest as the skipper calmly arranged his fenders along his gleaming topsides and tried to appear unconcerned as the small Sherman Tank bulldogged its way backwards and forwards. We watched enthralled. None of the RLP contingent had moved, save to open another can of Coke. The skipper, himself unlikely to die first in a famine, was starting to look a bit unwell.
But we decided that the place to lend support was the solo skipper on the Much Nicer Yacht, after all Charter Skipper had dismissed my advances previously and had plenty of manpower onboard should he wish to involve them. So I took the dinghy over to the Much Nicer Yacht and offered to help. Rob Burt welcomed me aboard and we set about weighing anchor to give the Sherman Tank a bit more room. As we did so, the Harbourmaster appeared in his launch. Apparently they were likely to be snagged on an old electricity cable lying on the seabed. No wonder he hadn’t dragged.
The harbourmaster offers some advice whilst I help Rob to weigh anchor just beyond
The rest of us were at once relieved to learn that it wasn’t our anchors… in no time, Rob had the beautiful NALA underway and we re-anchored in the lee of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club. It turned out that he is a Brit who came to America forty years ago seeking his fortune and has rather stayed put. Judging by the boat, a one-off Sparkman and Stephens design and immaculate in every way, he made a good decision. Based on my outstanding performance operating the electric anchor windlass controls on the foredeck, he invited Julie and I to the New York Yacht Club that evening. At that point I realised that my tatty pink polo shirt was inside out, my flies were at half mast and my bunions sticking out of my Crocs. What could he have been thinking?
As I returned to ESCAPADE, the Sherman Tank was in the final throes of putting to sea. The rain was ‘tory-enshul’, but the offending electricity cable was now suspended from his bows by a short whip and his anchor was stowed. I offered to help in the certain knowledge that there was nothing left to do; he smiled ruefully and ten minutes later disappeared into a large black rain cloud whilst I warmed up in the shower and Julie wondered what to wear to the New York Yacht Club.
The New York Yacht Club’s Newport clubhouse, Harbour Court
A launch turned up alongside us at 6pm on the dot and Rob was a terrific host. He knew rather more about motor cars then either of us, but he also knew a large cross section of the membership in the club that evening, including the fairly legendary superyacht helmsman Hank Halsted (famed amongst other things for teaching John Lennon to sail). We were lucky to join them for dinner there, where I particularly enjoyed hearing about Hank’s time with Hinckleys (my American sailing passion) and a series of Rob’s rather risqué jokes, none of which can be printed here. Suffice to say he has some of the qualifications necessary to be a fine British Foreign Secretary, but perhaps not all! Julie and I had a brilliant evening in a very splendid place, hosted by extraordinarily generous people and welcomed by everyone.
The ’dit’ everyone wants to hear about ESCAPADE is about our trip to Cuba and our adventures in the company of the Pakistani Ambassador and his wife. It’s a story I think about a lot at the moment as we read about the election results in Pakistan and wonder what impact Imran Khan will have on that extraordinary country and its people. Not least our lovely friends Micky and Rafia. This sailing life…
On Sunday, the sun came out. Rob and NALA disappeared early before we had a chance to offer him a ‘full English’, so we resolved to track him down in Stonington, Connecticut in the ‘Fall’. Instead, we focused on the Newport Jazz Festival, for which we had tickets. It takes place in Fort Adams, a clone of one of the Victorian forts overlooking Portsmouth or Plymouth and with THE best views of the sailing action in Newport harbour. The headline act for us was Gregory Porter (listen to his hit track ‘Liquid Spirit’ if you do nothing else today) but we particularly enjoyed the coolest octogenarian in jazz Charles Lloyd, with his magical saxophone playing with Lucinda Williams, a queen of Americana and a legend in her own right. There was a very slick all-girl band called Artemis with vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant who was by far the finest singer of the day – an Ella Fitzgerald peach of a voice – and there were some funky Brits too: a trio called Gogo Penguin whose music wasn’t quite my thing, but who were clearly very slick and justly deserving of a Mercury Prize in 2014.
Charles Lloyd at the Newport Jazz Festival: I hope I look that cool at 81…
What a great event: something for everyone and plenty of new genres to try. The sun shone down hard, the sailing boats provided a spectacular backdrop and we made up for the rather bizarre ban on alcohol (imposed by some very serious looking local policemen in over-tight uniforms) by boarding LYRA MAGNA afterwards and drinking their wine assisted by some new friends, Des and Christine Meehan, who own a shiny Oyster 46 called CLOUD 9 of Kingswear. This sailing life.